The state of Connecticut announced that a new report concerning investment in the New Haven Line is out. The report is damning to most involved, chief of all the Connecticut Department of Transportation for having such poor maintenance practices and high construction costs, and secondarily consultant AECOM for not finding more efficient construction methods and operating patterns, even though many readily exist in Europe.
What started out as an ambitious 30-30-30 proposal to reduce the New York-New Haven trip time to an hour, which is feasible without construction outside the right-of-way, turned into an $8-10 billion proposal to reduce trip times from today’s 2 hours by 25 minutes by 2035. This is shelf art: the costs are high enough and the benefits low enough that it’s unlikely the report will lead to any actionable improvement, and will thus adorn the shelves of CTDOT, AECOM, and the governor’s office. It goes without saying that people should be losing their jobs over this, especially CTDOT managers, who have a track record of ignorance and incuriosity. Instead of a consultant-driven process with few in-house planners, who aren’t even good at their jobs, CTDOT should staff up in-house, hiring people with a track record of success, which does not exist in the United States and thus requires reaching out to European, Japanese, and Korean agencies.
Maintenance costs and the state of good repair racket
I have a video I uploaded just before the report came out, explaining why the state of good repair (SOGR) concept has, since the late 1990s, been a racket permitting agencies to spend vast sums of money with nothing to show for it. The report inadvertently confirms this. The New Haven Line is four-track, but since the late 1990s it has never had all four tracks in service at the same time, as maintenance is done during the daytime with flagging rules slowing down the trains. Despite decades of work, the backlog does not shrink, and the slow zones are never removed, only replaced (see PDF-p. 7 of the report). The report in fact states (PDF-p. 8),
To accommodate regular maintenance as well as state-of-good-repair and normal replacement improvements, much of the four-track NHL typically operates with only three tracks.
Moreover, on PDF-p. 26, the overall renewal costs are stated as $700-900 million a year in the 2017-21 period. This includes rolling stock replacement, but the share of that is small, as it only includes 66 new M8 cars, a less than second-order item. It also includes track upgrades for CTRail, a program to run trains up to Hartford and Springfield, but those tracks preexist and renewal costs there are not too high. In effect, CTDOT is spending around $700 million annually on a system that, within the state, includes 385 single-track-km for Metro-North service and another 288 single-track-km on lines owned by Amtrak.
This is an insane renewal cost. In Germany, the Hanover-Würzburg NBS cost 640 million euros to do 30-year track renewal on, over a segment of 532 single-track-km – and the line is overall about 30% in tunnel. This includes new rails, concrete ties, and switches. The entire work is a 4-year project done in a few tranches of a few months each to limit the slowdowns, which are around 40 minutes, punctuated by periods of full service. In other words, CTDOT is likely spending more annually per track-km on a never-ending renewal program than DB is on a one-time program to be done once per generation.
A competent CTDOT would self-abnegate and become German (or Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). It could for a few hundred million dollars renew the entirety of the New Haven Line and its branches, with track geometry machines setting the tracks to be fully superelevated and setting the ballast grade so as to improve drainage. With turnout replacement, all speed limits not coming from right-of-way geometry could be lifted, with the possible exception of some light limits on the movable bridges. With a rebuild of the Grand Central ladder tracks and turnouts for perhaps $250,000 per switch (see e.g. Neustadt switches), trains could do New York-New Haven in about 1:03 making Amtrak stops and 1:27 making all present-day local stops from Stamford east.
The incompetence of CTDOT and its consultants is not limited to capital planning. Operations are lacking as well. The best industry practice, coming from Switzerland, is to integrate the timetable with infrastructure and rolling stock planning. This is not done in this case.
On the contrary: the report recommends buying expensive dual-mode diesel locomotives for through-service from the unelectrified branches instead of electrifying them, which could be done for maybe $150 million (the Danbury Branch was once electrified and still has masts, but no wires). The lifecycle costs of electric trains are half those of diesel trains, and this is especially important when there is a long electrified trunk line with branches coming out of it. Dual-mode locomotives are a pantomime of low electrification operating costs, since they have high acquisition costs and poor performance even in electric mode as they are not multiple-units. Without electrification, the best long-term recommendation is to shut down service on these two branches, in light of high maintenance and operating costs.
The choice of coaches is equally bad. The report looks at bilevels, which are a bad idea in general, but then adds to the badness by proposing expensive catenary modifications (PDF-p. 35). In fact, bilevel European trains exist that clear the lowest bridge, such as the KISS, and those are legal on American tracks now, even if Metro-North is unaware.
The schedule pattern is erratic as well. Penn Station Access will soon permit service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. And yet, there is no attempt to have a clean schedule to both. There is no thought given to timed transfers at New Rochelle, connecting local and express trains going east with trains to Grand Central and Penn Station going west, in whichever cross-platform pattern is preferred.
The express patterns proposed are especially bad. The proposal for through-running to Philadelphia and Harrisburg (“NYX”) is neat, but it’s so poorly integrated with everything else it might as well not exist. Schedules are quoted in trains per day, for the NYX option and the GCX one to Grand Central, and in neither case do they run as frequently as hourly (PDF-p. 26). There is no specific schedule to the minute that the interested passenger may look at, nor any attempt at an off-peak clockface pattern.
Throw it in the trash
The desired rail investment plan for Connecticut, setting aside high-speed rail, is full electrification, plus track renewal to permit the elimination of non-geometric speed limits. It should cost around $1 billion one-time; the movable bridge replacements should be postponed as they are nice to have but not necessary, their proposed budgets are excessive, and some of their engineering depends on whether high-speed rail is built. The works on the New Haven Line are doable in a year or not much more – the four-year timeline on Hanover-Würzburg is intended to space out the flagging delays, but the existing New Haven Line is already on a permanent flagging delay. The trains should be entirely EMUs, initially the existing and under-order M8 fleet, and eventually new lightweight single-level trains. The schedule should have very few patterns, similar to today’s off-peak local and express trains with some of one (or both) pattern diverting to Penn Station; the express commuter trains should take around 1:30 and intercity trains perhaps 1:05. This is a straightforward project.
Instead, AECOM produced a proposal that costs 10 times as much, takes 10 times as long, and produces half the time savings. Throw it in the trash. It is bad, and the retired and working agency executives who are responsible for all of the underlying operating and capital assumptions should be dismissed for incompetence. The people who worked on the report and their sources who misinformed them should be ashamed for producing such a shoddy plan. Even mid-level planners in much of Europe could design a far better project, leaving the most experienced and senior engineers for truly difficult projects such as high-speed rail.
A regrettable feature of rail transport is that often, the speed of a line deteriorates over time after it opens or finishes a major upgrade. This can come from deferred maintenance or from proper maintenance that includes stricter speed limits or more timetable padding; in either case, it’s because maintaining the original schedule is not seen as a priority, and thus over time service degrades. In some cases, this can also include a deterioration of frequency over time, usually due to inattention.
This is not excusable behavior. The networks where this feature exists, including the US, France, and Germany, are not better-run than the Shinkansen, where I have not seen any such deterioration of Shinkansen speed in many years of poking around timetables on Hyperdia, or the system in Switzerland. Switzerland’s timed transfers make it impossible for gradual deterioration of speed to accumulate – trains are scheduled to just make connections to other trains at major nodes, and so if they slow down too much then they can’t make the transfers and the entire network degrades.
I wish I could say degradation is a purely American phenomenon. It’s very common in the United States, certainly – on the subway in New York the deterioration made citywide news in 2017 (including one piece by me), on the trains between New York and New Haven the schedule is visibly slower now than it was in the late 2000s, on Amtrak the Northeast Corridor has degraded since the 2000s. Speed is not viewed as a priority in the US, and so there are always little excuses that add up, whether they’re flagging, the never ending State of Good Repair program on the New Haven Line under which at no point in the last 20-25 years have all four tracks been in service at the same time, or just inattention to reliability.
But no. France and Germany have had this as well. The TGV used to run between Paris and Marseille in 3:03 every two hours and in 3:06 every other hour; today I see a 3:04 itinerary every four hours and the rest start at 3:11. And here, the Berlin-Hamburg trains were timetabled at 1:30 in the mid-2000s, giving an average speed of 189 km/h, the highest in Germany even though the top speed is only 230 and not 300; the fastest itinerary I can find right now is 1:43, averaging only 165 km/h.
I stress that such deterioration does not have any benefits. It’s an illusory tradeoff. When New York chose to slow down the L trains’ braking rate as part of CBTC installation, this was not seen in reduced systemwide maintenance costs; speed just wasn’t a priority, so the brakes were derated. The 7 train, as I understand it, will instead speed up when CBTC comes online, a decision made under Andy Byford’s program to speed up service.
Nor has France saved anything out of the incremental slowdowns in TGV service. Operating costs are up, not down. The savings from slowdowns are on the illusory to microscopic spectrum, always trumped by increases in cost from other sources, for example the large increases in wages in the 2010s due to the cheminot strikes.
By far the greatest cost of speed is during construction. During operations, faster service means lower crew costs per km. This is where the Swiss maxim of running trains as fast as necessary comes from. This isn’t about derating trains’ acceleration – on the contrary, Switzerland procures high-performance trains. It’s about building the least amount of physical infrastructure required to maintain a desired timetable, and once the infrastructure is built, running that timetable.
Here is a table of New York community boards, with their employed resident and job counts, broken down by how many people live and work in the same community board and how many in the same borough:
|Borough||CB||Emp. res.||In same borough||%||In CB||%||Jobs||From same borough||%||From CB %|
- The data uses the all-jobs filter on OnTheMap, which assigns a lot of public-sector jobs in the city to City Hall or Brooklyn Borough Hall. The actual number of workers in Brooklyn CB 2 is lower than stated, by perhaps 60,000. The definition of CBs also excludes a few parts of the city with jobs, including the airports. Finally, Marble Hill is in Manhattan but is in the Bronx CB 8; it is counted in Manhattan throughout in same-borough job counts but as part of the Bronx CB 8 in CB job and resident counts.
- Very few people work in the same community board they live in. Citywide, it’s 7.8%. The numbers are only high in Manhattan CB 5, which consists of Midtown and is so expensive to live in that people live there if they’re high-income commuters choosing a short walking commute. And yet, local politics is dominated by those 7.8%, who think owning a business near where they live makes them more moral than the rest of the city.
- Even working and living in the same borough is not that common, only 38.7% citywide. It’s only a majority in Manhattan and a bare majority in two Outer Borough CBs, Brooklyn 7 and 12 (Sunset Park and Borough Park).
- Staten Island, which has a strong not-the-rest-of-the-city political identity, relies on the rest of the city’s economy. Only 25.8% of employed residents work within the borough, and 55.6% work in the other four boroughs, the remaining working in the suburbs. Slightly more Staten Island residents work in Manhattan than on Staten Island.
- The majority of people working in New York live outside the borough they work in, and this is true even excluding Manhattan, only 45.7% of outer-borough workers living in the borough they work in.
- The Bronx CB 2 is on net a job center and not a bedroom community, due to industrial jobs in Hunts Point.
In New York, the frequency of a bus or subway service is regularly adjusted every three months to fine-tune crowding. Where Berlin has a fixed clockface timetable in which most trains run every 5 minutes all day, New York prefers to make small changes to the frequency of each service throughout the day based on crowding. The New York approach looks more efficient on paper, but is in fact the opposite. It leads to irregular frequencies whenever trains share tracks with other trains, and weakens the system by leading to long waits. But another problem that I learned about recently is that it is unusually inconvenient for labor, and makes the timetabling of trains too difficult.
How does New York timetable trains?
New York City Transit meets every three months to change the frequency of each named (numbered or lettered) subway service and, I believe, also every bus service. The rule is that, off-peak, train loads should be 125% of seated capacity at the most crowded point of the journey. Of note:
- This is adjusted by time of day – it’s not one fixed frequency for the entire midday off-peak.
- At the peak, the frequency follows the same rule but the guideline allows much more crowding, equal to about 3 times the seated capacity.
- When multiple services share the same trunk, the crowding is based on the service, not the trunk. This matters because sometimes there’s a notable difference, for example the 2 is more crowded than the 3 coming in from the Bronx and Harlem.
- There is no adjustment for the length of the most crowded point: it could be one 1.5-minute interstation, or a long 20-minute stretch.
- The interlining between different services leads to irregular frequencies on each, thus different crowding levels. The frequency guidelines are averaged across different trains of the same service.
- There is a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes weekdays, every 12 minutes weekends; late at night, all trains run every 20 minutes.
I wrote in 2015 about the negatives of this approach, focusing on the issue of interlining of different services with different frequencies and the seams this creates. Because the system is not trunk-based, the alternation of (say) 2 and 3 trains on the long trunk that they share is not regular. Thus the frequency is irregular and so is crowding. More recently, in 2019 I wrote about the frequency-ridership spiral. The guidelines are based on thinking from an era when nobody thought ridership was endogenous to frequency; direct commute trips without transfers are long compared with frequency, so in that era, the only perceived purpose of frequency was to provide capacity for a fixed ridership. But in reality, 10 minutes is too infrequent for the subway trips people actually take, which average 13.5 minutes without transfers.
Timetabling and labor
The consequence of the constant fidgeting on frequency is that crew timetables are unpredictable. In one period, the system may need more subway drivers reporting to Coney Island Yard, and in another, it may need more at yards in the Bronx and Queens. Bus depots likewise are located all over the city. Naturally, subway yards and bus depots are at peripheral locations, usually accessible only from one subway line in one direction. Commuting there from most spots in the city is difficult.
Moreover, as is typical in the American unionized public sector, workers at New York City Transit pick their schedules in descending order of seniority. The senior workers can make sure to pick work out of depots near where they live. The junior ones spend years having to work out of the Bronx one day and Southern Brooklyn the next. The commute is so bad that the TWU negotiated paid commute time: workers who have long commutes, forced by erratic timetabling, get paid for commute time, rather than just for time they actually work. Car ownership rates among subway workers are high, which is not typical of New York workers.
The erratic scheduling also means that, even independently of the long commutes for train and bus drivers, there is extensive downtime between runs. A prominent peak in the schedule means that split shifts are unavoidable. Split shifts are undesirable to workers, and therefore shift scheduling always includes some compromises, for example paying workers half-time for time between shifts (as in Boston), or scheduling shorter paid gaps between revenue service. In New York, there are some subway train operators who have three uninterrupted hours of paid work in which they do not drive a revenue train.
As a result, comparing total counts for train operators and service-hours, NYCT gets around 550 hours per train operator. I provided some comparative links in 2016, but they have rotted; Berlin, which runs close to even service on the U-Bahn with very little peaking and little adjustment over time, has 790 drivers and gets 22.1 million annual train-km at an average speed of 30.9 km/h, which is 905 hours per train driver. If you’ve seen me cite lower figures, such as 820 or 829 hours/driver, they come from assuming 20.3 million train-km, which figure is from 2009.
This is not because New York City drivers are lazy or overpaid. The timetabling is forcing unnecessary pain on them, which allows them to demand higher wages, and also leads to inefficiency due to much downtime and paid commutes. NYCT pays bus and train drivers $85,000 a year in base salary per See Through NY, and there aren’t hordes of people knocking on NYCT’s doors demanding those jobs. Boston pays slightly less, around $80,000, and has some retention problems among bus drivers; private bus companies that attempt to pay much less just can’t find qualified workers. The market pay is high, partly because it’s a genuinely physically tough job, but partly because it’s made tougher by erratic scheduling. In Munich, the richest city in Germany, with average per capita incomes comparable to those of New York, S-Bahn drivers get 38,000-45,000€ a year, and one wage comparison site says 40,800€. Berlin pays less, but Berlin is a poorer city than both Munich and New York.
There is another way
New York should timetable its trains differently. Berlin offers a good paradigm, but is not the only one. As far as reasonably practical, frequency should be on a fixed clockface timetable all day. This cannot be exactly 5 minutes in New York, because it needs more capacity at rush hour, but it should aim to run a fixed peak timetable and match off-peak service to peak service.
One possibility is to run all trunks every 2.5 minutes. In some cases, it may be fine to drop a trunk to every 3 minutes or a bit worse: the L train has to run every 3 minutes due to electrical capacity limits, but should run at this frequency all day; the local Broadway Line trains should probably only run every 3 minutes as they have less demand. But I wouldn’t run the 1 train every 3 minutes as it does today, but rather keep it every 2.5, matching the combined trunk of the 2 and 3, and try to time the cross-platform transfers at 96th Street. Train services that share tracks with other services should thus run every 5 minutes, maybe 6. Last year I called this the six-minute city, in which all buses and trains run every (at worst) 6 minutes all day. In the evening this can drop to a train or bus every 10 minutes, and late at night every 20, but this should be done at consistent times, with consistent quantity of service demanded week in, week out.
There may be still some supplemental peak frequency. Taking 3 minutes as the base on every trunk, some trunks may need 2.5 at the peak, or ideally 2 or less with better signaling. It represents a peak-to-base ratio of 1-1.2, or maybe 1.5 in some extreme cases; Berlin, too, has the odd line with 4-minute peak frequency, for a ratio of 1.25. The employee timetabling is unlikely to be onerous with a ratio of 1.25 rather than the present-day ratio of around 2, and while passengers do drop out of riding trains for short distances if they only come every 10-12 minutes, 6 minutes on branches may be tolerable, even if 5 is slightly better.
It’s a large increase in service. That’s fine. Frequency-ridership spirals work in your favor here. Increases in service require small increases in expenditure, even assuming variable costs rise proportionately – but they in fact do not, since regularizing frequency around a consistent number and reducing the peak-to-base ratio make it possible to extract far more hours out of each train driver, as in Berlin. Net of the increase in revenue coming from better service, such a system is unlikely to cost more in public expenditure.
This remains true even assuming no pay cuts for drivers in exchange for better work conditions. Pay cuts are unlikely anyway, but improving the work conditions for workers, especially junior workers, does make it easy to hire more people as necessary. The greater efficiency of workers under consistent timetabling without constant fidgeting doesn’t translate to lower pay, but to much more service, in effect taking those 550 annual hours and turning them into 900 through much higher off-peak frequency. It may well reduce public expenditure: more service and thus greater revenue from passengers on the same labor force.
What it requires is understanding that frequency is not to be constantly messed with. Gone are the days when frequency was naturally so high that it looked to be just a function of capacity. On a system with so many transfers and so much short ridership, ridership is endogenous to it, and therefore high, consistent frequency is a must for passengers. For workers, it is also a must, to avoid imposing 1.5-hour commutes on people without much notice. Modernization in this case is good for everyone.
Queens needs a bus redesign, thankfully already in the works; it also needs better LIRR service that city residents can use as if it’s an express subway. A key part of bus redesign is having buses and trains work together, so that buses feed trains where possible rather than competing with them. The proposed Queens redesign incorporates subway transfers but not LIRR transfers since the LIRR is infrequent and charges premium fares. This raises the question – how does the optimal bus network for Queens change in the presence of better city service on the LIRR? And conversely, how can the LIRR be designed to be of better use to Queens bus riders?
It turns out that the answer to both questions is “very little.” The best Queens bus network in a city where the LIRR lines through Queens run every 5-10 minutes all day is largely the same as the best network in a city where the LIRR remains an exclusive suburb-to-Manhattan mode. Similarly, bus connections change little when it comes to infill stations on the LIRR for better city service. This is not a general fact of bus redesigns and regional rail – the reason for this pattern has to do with the importance of Flushing and Jamaica. Nor does it mean that regional rail is irrelevant to buses in Queens – it just means that the benefits of rerouting buses to serve additional LIRR stations are too small compared with the drawbacks.
Flushing and Jamaica
This is the present-day subway infrastructure:
The 7 train terminates in Flushing; the E (drawn in F-orange above) and J/Z terminate in Jamaica, while the F terminates in Jamaica as well slightly farther east. As a result, the proposed Queens redesign has many buses from farther east diverting to one of these two neighborhood centers in order to connect with the subway better.
The LIRR changes the rail network situation. The Port Washington Branch, probably the easiest to turn into frequent S-Bahn service, parallels the 7 but continues past Flushing into the suburbs, with closely-spaced stations in the city from Flushing east. The Main Line likewise runs parallel to the Queens Boulevard Line and then continues east past Jamaica with additional stations in Eastern Queens, with branches for the Montauk Line and the Atlantic Line (Far Rockaway and Long Beach Branches).
The ideal bus grid is isotropic. An extension of train service in the radial direction makes it easier to run a bus grid, because buses could just go north-south on major streets: Main, Kissena-Parsons, 149th, 162nd-164th, Utopia, 188th, Francis Lewis, Bell-Springfield. In contrast, the planned redesign diverts the 164th route to Jamaica to connect to the subway, and treats 149th as a pure Flushing feeder. Moreover, the east-west buses in Northeast Queens all divert to serve Flushing.
However, in practice, all of these kinks are necessary regardless of what happens to the LIRR. Queens destinations are not isotropic. Flushing and Jamaica are both important business districts. Jamaica also has transit connections that can’t be provided at an existing or infill LIRR Main Line station, namely the JFK AirTrain and the multi-line LIRR transfer.
I can think of one broad exception to the rule that the optimal bus redesign for Queens is insensitive to what happens to the LIRR: the radial lines going from Jamaica to the southeast. These include the Merrick Boulevard routes, today the Q4, Q5, and N4, or QT18 and QT40-42 in the redesign; and the Guy Brewer Boulevard routes, today the Q111 and Q113-4 and in the redesign the QT13, QT19, QT43, and QT45. As of 2019, each of the two avenues carries slightly fewer than 20,000 riders per weekday.
Those buses are likely to lose traffic if LIRR service on the Montauk and Atlantic Lines improves. Long-range traffic is far faster by train; I expect people to walk long distances to an LIRR station, a kilometer or even more, for a direct, subway-fare trip to Manhattan coming every 10 minutes. Even lines that require people to change at Jamaica should wipe out most bus ridership, since the transfer at Jamaica is designed to be pleasant (cross-platform, usually timed).
In their stead, buses should run orthogonally to the train. Linden should get a single bus route, which in the redesign proposal is the QT7, losing the Linden-Jamaica QT40 in the process and instead running the QT7 more frequently. Farmers, running north-south crossing the Main, Montauk, and Atlantic Lines, should get higher frequency, on what is today the Q3 and in the redesign the QT68; in both cases it diverts to Jamaica rather than continuing north to Bayside and Whitestone, but as explained above, this is a necessary consequence of the job concentration in Jamaica.
Integrated design of buses and trains means not just moving the buses to serve the trains, but also choosing train station locations for the best bus transfers. One example of this is in the Bronx: Penn Station Access plans should include one more infill station, built at Pelham Parkway to connect to the Bx12. By the same token, we can ask how bus-rail connections impact LIRR planning.
The answer is that, just as they only lightly impact bus route design, they do not impact LIRR station siting. Ideally, LIRR stations should be sited at major streets in order to connect with buses better. However, this is to a large extent already the case, and places where moving a station or building infill is valuable are sporadic:
- On the Port Washington Branch, there is no station at Francis Lewis. It may be valuable to build one, or alternatively to close Auburndale and replace it with two stations, one right at Francis Lewis and one at Utopia.
- On the Main Line, Queens Village is already at Springfield, Hollis is already at 188th/Farmers, and an infill station at Merrick is valuable regardless of what happens with the buses. A Francis Lewis station is plausible, but is so close to both Hollis and Queens Village that I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.
- The Montauk Line is not penetrated by many crossing arterials. Linden already has a station, St. Albans. Then to the south there is an awkward succession of three intersections within 850 meters: Farmers, Merrick, Springfield. The least bad option is probably to build an infill stop in the middle at Merrick, with the shopping center as an anchor, and with ramps leading to Farmers and Springfield.
- The Atlantic Line has the Locus Manor stop at Farmers, and Rosedale at Francis Lewis. Laurelton may be moved a bit west to hit Springfield better, and in addition, 1-2 infill stations are valuable, one at Linden and possibly also one at Baisley. But the Linden infill, like the Merrick infill, is fully justified regardless of bus transfers
In Queens, the importance of Flushing and Jamaica works to permit mostly separate planning of bus and regional rail service, except to some extent in Southeast Queens. This is not true in most other places, especially not elsewhere in New York. It follows from the fact that without city-usable LIRR service, buses have to divert to Flushing and Jamaica to feed the subway, whereas with city-usable LIRR service, buses still have to divert to Flushing and Jamaica because they are important business and cultural centers.
This is useful, because transit is a complex system, so anytime it’s possible to break it into mostly independently-planned components, it gets more tractable. If the bus redesign doesn’t require dealing with Long Island NIMBYs and traditional railroaders, and if turning the LIRR into a useful S-Bahn doesn’t require simultaneously redrawing the Queens bus map, then both processes become easier. A redesigned Queens bus map already comes pre-optimized for future LIRR improvements with mostly cosmetic changes, and this is good for the process of transit modernization.
The discussion of regional rail in New York usually focuses on through-running, with neat S-Bahn-/RER–style maps showing how lines run. But it’s also instructive to look at longer-range lines, under the rubric of RegionalBahn in Germany or Transilien in Paris. I’ve argued against segregating long- and short-range commuter trains in New York, on the grounds that its infrastructure layout is different from that of Berlin or Paris.
However, it is still necessary to conceptually plan longer-range regional rail in the New York region – that is, how to serve destinations that are too far to be really considered suburbs. I think that those lines should through-run, which makes the planning somewhat different from a standard intercity integrated timed transfer network, but the choice of where to go to, what frequency to push for, and so on is still important. This post should be seen as a pre-map version of what I drew for Upstate New York and New England, but for the Tri-State Region and satellites in Pennsylvania. It should also be seen as a companion to any high-speed rail proposal, albeit unmapped because I am still uncertain about some visible aspects.
The scope of this post is anywhere one should be able to get to from New York without resorting to high-speed rail. This covers the combined statistical area and its penumbra. In practice, this post will focus on areas that are off the Northeast Corridor than on areas that are on it. On the Northeast Corridor, I’ve talked about low-speed solutions toward New Haven putting it slightly more than an hour away from New York; instead of repeating myself, it’s better to discuss other destinations.
So what are the satellite regions around New York, excluding the city’s own suburbs? Let’s make a list:
- Eastern Long Island far enough to be outside the commute zone, like the Hamptons
- The Jersey Shore, likewise focusing on what’s too far for commuting, like Toms River
- Allentown and the Lehigh Valley
- The Delaware Water Gap Region and possibly Scranton
- The Mid-Hudson Valley on both sides of the river, i.e. Newburgh and Poughkeepsie
- Historic city centers in Connecticut: Danbury, Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Haven
For the most part, they already have commuter rail service. But travel demand is usually not very commuter-oriented. Some of those lines have service that accommodates this fact, like express LIRR service to the Hamptons at popular weekend getaway times. Others don’t. Newburgh, Allentown, Toms River and Delaware Water Gap have no service at all, though Delaware Water Gap is on the under-construction Lackawanna Cutoff.
The need for electrification
All trains touching New York must be fully electric. This means spending not a lot of money on completing wiring the LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, and ensuring further extensions are electrified as well. Diesel trains are slow and unreliable: the LIRR’s mean distance between failures is around 20,000-30,000 km on the diesel and dual-mode locomotives and well into the 6 figures on the EMUs. New Jersey Transit’s diesels also tend to only serve Hoboken, which forces an additional transfer; NJT’s new dual-mode locomotives are extremely costly and low-performance.
This kind of completionism is especially valuable because of fleet uniformity. Boston is reticent about electrification because it likes having a fleet it can maintain all at one place, and it requires some additional resources to expand a railyard that can accommodate future electrification. In New York this works in reverse: a large majority of the network is electrified, and getting rid of the diesel tails increases efficiency through scale.
The issue of express service
All of the tails in question are far from New York, generally 100 or more km, and close to 200 km for Montauk. This introduces tension between the need to run intense local service to areas 15 km from Manhattan and the need to maintain adequate speed at longer range. The solution is always to prioritize shorter-range service and make regional rail the most express pattern that can fit within the through-running paradigm. This works well where there are four tracks allowing long-range express service, as on the Northeast Corridor and the Empire Corridor, including tie-ins like Danbury and Waterbury.
Elsewhere, this is compromised. EMUs can still beat present-day diesel trip times, but the average speeds of the 30-30-30 plan for Connecticut are not realistic. This is a tradeoff; it is possible to run express trains to the Hamptons on the Babylon Branch, but it imposes a real cost on frequency to dense suburbs and should therefore be avoided. If there’s room for timed overtakes then they are welcome, but if there’s not, then these regional trains should really run as S-Bahn trains that just keep going farther out.
This has precedent on busy lines. Trains in the exurbs of Tokyo tend to run at the same speed as an ordinary rapid train, for example on the Chuo Line; there is the occasional higher-speed liner, but usually the trains to Otsuki, Takasaki, Odawara, etc. are just ordinary rapids, averaging maybe 50 km/h. In New York the average speed would be higher because there are still fewer stops even with the infill I’m proposing, which fits since there is more sprawl in New York.
Some of the outer ends in question should also get service that doesn’t go to New York. There is an existing line between Danbury and Brewster that can be used for revenue moves. Allentown lies on a decent SEPTA Regional Rail extension, albeit not on a good one, as the route is curvy. If there are internal bus systems, for example in Waterbury, then whenever possible they should pulse with the train, and it goes without saying trains that do not serve New York should be timed with trains that do.
This for the most part should run on a half-hourly clockface schedule. This means that on an S-Bahn network where even individual branches run every 10-15 minutes, there should be a rule saying every train in 2 or 3, depending on base frequency, continues onward to a distant destination. This is a combination of Northern European planning (timed connections) and Japanese planning (treating long-range regional rail in a megacity as a commuter train that goes further than normal).
This is a writeup I prepared for modernization of the Hempstead Branch of the LIRR in the same style as our ongoing Regional Rail line by line appendices for Boston at TransitMatters, see e.g. here for the Worcester Line. This will be followed up in a few days by a discussion of the writing process and what it means for the advocacy sphere.
Regional rail for New York: the Hempstead Line
New York has one of the most expansive commuter rail networks in the world. Unfortunately, its ridership underperforms such peer megacities as London, Paris, Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul. Even Berlin has almost twice as much ridership on its suburban rail network, called S-Bahn, as the combined total of the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit. This is a draft proposal of one component of how to modernize New York’s commuter rail network.
The core of modernization is to expand the market for commuter rail beyond its present-day core of 9-to-5 suburban commuters who live in the suburbs and work in Manhattan. This group already commutes by public transportation at high rates, but drives everywhere except to Manhattan. To go beyond this group requires expanding off-peak service to the point of making the commuter railroads like longer-range, higher-speed Queens Boulevard express trains, with supportive fares and local transit connections.
The LIRR Hempstead Line is a good test case for beginning with such a program. It is fortunate that on this line the capital and operating costs of modernization are low, and service would be immediately useful within the city as well as dense inner suburbs. With better service, the line would still remain useful to 9-to-5 commuters – in fact it would become more useful through higher speed and more flexibility for office workers who sometimes stay at the office until late. But in addition, people could take it for ordinary transit trips, including work trips to job centers in Queens or on Long Island, school trips, or social gatherings with friends in the region.
The Hempstead Line
The Hempstead Line consists of the present-day LIRR Hempstead Branch and a branch to be constructed to East Garden City. The Hempstead Branch today is 34 km between Penn Station and Hempstead, of which 24 km lie within New York City and 10 lie within Long Island.
Most trains on the branch today do not serve Penn Station because of the line’s low ridership, but instead divert to the Atlantic Branch to Downtown Brooklyn, and Manhattan-bound passengers change at Jamaica to any of the branches that run through to Midtown. Current frequency is an hourly train off-peak, and a train every 15-20 minutes for a one-hour peak. Peak trains do not all run local, but rather one morning peak train runs express from Bellerose to Penn Station.
Ridership is weak, in fact weaker than on any other line except West Hempstead and the diesel tails of Oyster Bay, Greenport, and Montauk. In the 2014 station counts, the sum of boardings at all stations was 7,000 a weekday, and the busiest stations were Floral Park with 1,500 and Hempstead with 1,200. But commute volumes from the suburbs served by the Hempstead Branch to the city are healthy, about 7,500 to Manhattan and another 10,500 to the rest of the city, many near LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens. Moreover, 13,500 city residents work in those suburbs, and they disproportionately live near the LIRR, but very few ride the train. Finally, the majority of the line’s length is within the city, but premium fares and low frequency make it uncompetitive with the subway, and therefore ridership is weak.
Despite the weak ridership, the line is a good early test case for commuter rail modernization in New York. Most of it lies in the city, paralleling the overcrowded Queens Boulevard Line of the subway. As explained below, there is also a healthy suburban job market, which not only attracts many city reverse-commuters today, but is likely to attract more if public transportation options are better.
The stations of the Hempstead Line already have destinations that people can walk to, so that if service is improved as in the following outline, people can ride the LIRR there. These include the following:
- JFK, accessible via Jamaica Station.
- Adelphi University, midway between Garden City and Nassau Boulevard, walkable to both.
- York University, fairly close to Jamaica and very close to a proposed Merrick Boulevard infill station.
- Primary and secondary schools near stations within the city, where students often have long commutes.
- Penn Station as an intercity station – passengers from Queens and Long Island traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington would benefit from faster and more frequent trains.
- Many jobs near stations in Queens and on Long Island as described below.
Within a kilometer of all stations except Penn Station, there is a total of 182,000 jobs in Queens and 50,000 on Long Island. The spine of the Main Line through Queens closely parallels the overcrowded Queens Boulevard express tracks, and in the postwar era was proposed for a Queens Super-Express subway line. But on Long Island, too, it serves the edge city cluster of Garden City and the city center of Hempstead. All of those jobs should generate healthy amounts of reverse-peak ridership and ridership terminating short of Manhattan.
|Station||Jobs within 1 km|
|Queensboro Plaza (@ QB)||62266|
|Sunnyside Jct (@ 43th)||23655 (with QBP: 78219)|
|Woodside||14409 (with Sunnyside: 36469)|
|Triboro Jct (@ 51st Ave)||14339 (Elmhurst Hospital)|
|Merrick Blvd||17020 (with Jamaica: 29260)|
|Bellerose||3014 (with QV: 7735)|
|Floral Park||5389 (with Bellerose: 6776)|
|Country Life Press||5404 (with GC: 10865)|
|Hempstead||10896 (with CLP: 15823)|
|East Garden City (@Oak)||12461|
|Nassau Center (@Endo)||6352 (with EGC: 17904)|
Required infrastructure investment
The LIRR has fairly high quality of infrastructure. Every single station has high platforms, permitting level boarding to trains with doors optimized for high-throughput stations. Most of the system is electrified with third rail, including the entirety of the Hempstead Branch. High-frequency regional rail can run on this system without any investment. However, to maximize utility and reliability, some small capital projects are required.
Queens Interlocking separation
Queens Interlocking separates the Hempstead Line from the Main Line. Today, the junction is flat: two two-track lines join together to form a four-track line, but trains have to cross opposing traffic at-grade. The LIRR schedules trains around this bottleneck, but it makes the timetable more fragile, especially at rush hour, when trains run so frequently that there are not enough slots for recovering from delays.
The solution is to grade-separate the junction. The project should also be bundled with converting Floral Park to an express station with four tracks and two island platforms; local trains should divert to the shorter Hempstead Line and all express trains should continue on the longer Main Line to Hicksville and points east. Finding cost figures for comparable projects is difficult, but Harold Interlocking was more complex and cost $250 million to grade-separate, even with a large premium for New York City projects.
Trains switch from one track to another at a junction using a device called a switch or turnout. There are two standards for turnouts: the American standard, dating to the 1890s, in which the switch is simpler to construct but involves an abrupt change in azimuth, called a secant switch; and the German standard from 1925, adopted nearly globally, in which the switch tapers to a thin blade to form what is called a tangential switch.
Passengers on a train that goes on a secant turnout are thrown sideways. To maintain adequate safety, trains are required to traverse such switches very slowly, at a speed comparable to 50 mm of cant deficiency on the curve of the switch. In contrast, German and French turnout standards permit 100 mm on their tangential switches; the double cant deficiency allows a nominal 40% increase in speed on a switch of given number (such as an American #10 vs. a German 1:10 or a French 0.1, all measuring the same frog angle). The real speed increase is usually larger because the train sways less, which creates more space in constrained train station throats.
With modern turnouts, Penn Station’s throat, currently limited to
10 15 mph ( 16 24 km/h), could be sped up to around 50 km/h, saving every train around 2 minutes just in the last few hundred meters into the station. Installation typically can be done in a few weekends, at a cost of around $200,000 per physical switch, which corresponds to high single-digit millions for a station as large as Penn. Amtrak has even taken to installing tangential switches on some portions of the Northeast Corridor, though not at the stations; unfortunately, instead of building these switches locally at local costs, it pays about $1.5 million per unit, even though in Germany and elsewhere in Europe installation costs are similar to those of American secant switches.
In addition to modifying the physical switches as outlined above, the LIRR should pursue speedups through better use of the rolling stock and better timetabling. In fact, the trains currently running are capable of 0.9 m/s^2 acceleration, but are derated to 0.45 without justification, which increases the time cost of every stop by about 30 seconds. In addition, LIRR timetables are padded about 20% over the technical running time, even taking into account the slow Penn Station throat and the derating. A more appropriate padding factor is 7%, practiced throughout Europe even on very busy mainlines, such as the Zurich station throat, where traffic is comparable to that of the rush hour LIRR.
To get to 7%, it is necessary to design the infrastructure so that delays do not propagate. Grade-separating Queens Interlocking is one key component, but another is better timetabling. Complex timetables require more schedule padding, because each train has a unique identity, and so if it is late, other trains on the line cannot easily substitute for it. In contrast, subway-style service with little branching is the easiest to schedule, because passengers do not distinguish different trains; not for nothing, the 7 and L trains, which run without sharing tracks with other lines, tend to be the most punctual and were the first two to implement CBTC signaling.
In the case of the LIRR, achieving this schedule requires setting things up so that all Hempstead Line trains run local on the Main Line to Penn Station, and all trains from Hicksville and points east run express to Grand Central. Atlantic and Babylon Branch trains can run to Atlantic Terminal, or to the local tracks to Penn, depending on capacity; Babylon can presumably run to Penn while the Far Rockaway and Long Beach Lines, already separated from the rest of the system, can run to Downtown Brooklyn.
Within the city, commuter rail station spacing is sparse. The reason is that the frequency and fares are uncompetitive. Historically, the LIRR had tight spacing in the city, with nine more stations on the Main Line within city limits, but it closed most of them in the 1920s and 30s as the subway opened to Queens. The subway offered very high frequency for a 5-cent fare compared with the LIRR’s 20-to-30-cent fares. Today, the fares remain unequal, but this can be changed, as can the off-peak frequency. In that case, it becomes useful to open some additional infill stops.
The cost of an infill station is unclear. There is a wide range; Boston and Philadelphia both open infill stations with high platforms for about $15-25 million each, and the European range is lower. Urban infill stations in constrained locations like Sunnyside can be more expensive, but not by more than a factor of 2. In the past, LIRR and Metro-North infill stops, such as those for Penn Station Access, have gone up to the three figures, and it is critical to prevent such costs from recurring.
This station is already part of the Sunnyside Yards master plan, by the name Sunnyside, and is supposed to begin construction immediately after the completion of the East Side Access project. This proposal gives it a different name only because there is another station called Sunnyside (see below).
Located at the intersection of the Main Line with Queens Boulevard, this would be a local station for trains heading toward Penn Station. It is close to the Queensboro Plaza development, which has the tallest building in the city outside Manhattan and more jobs than anywhere in the Outer Boroughs save perhaps Downtown Brooklyn. Within a kilometer of the station there are more than 60,000 jobs already, and this is before planned redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards.
The opening of East Side Access and Penn Station Access will create a zone through Sunnyside Yards where trains will run in parallel. LIRR trains will run toward either Penn Station or Grand Central, and Metro-North trains will run toward Penn Station.
It is valuable to build an express station to permit passengers to transfer. This way, passengers from the Penn Station Access stations in the Bronx could connect to Grand Central, and passengers from farther out on the New Haven Line who wish to go to
Penn Station Grand Central could board a train to either destination, improving the effective frequency. Likewise, LIRR passengers could change to a different destination across the platform at Sunnyside, improving their effective frequency.
The area is good for a train station by itself as well. It has 24,000 jobs within a kilometer, more than any other on the line except Penn Station and Queensboro Plaza. There is extensive overlap with the 1 km radius of Queensboro Plaza, but even without the overlap, there are 16,000 jobs, almost as many as within 1 km of Jamaica, and this number will rise with planned redevelopment of the Yards.
This station is at 51st Avenue, for future transfers to the planned Triboro RX orbital. Population and job density here are not high by city standards: the 14,000 jobs include 5,000 at Elmhurst Hospital on Broadway, which is at the periphery of the 1 km radius and is poorly connected to the railroads on the street network. The value of the station is largely as a transfer for passengers from Astoria and Brooklyn.
About 1.5 km east of Jamaica, Merrick Boulevard catches the eastern end of the Jamaica business district. It also connects to one of Eastern Queens’ primary bus corridors, and passengers connecting from the buses to Manhattan would benefit from being able to transfer outside the road traffic congestion around Jamaica Station.
The East Garden City extension
The Hempstead Branch was historically part of the Central Railroad of Long Island. To the west, it continued to Flushing, which segment was abandoned in 1879 as the LIRR consolidated its lines. To the east, it continued through Garden City and what is now Levittown and ran to Babylon on a segment the LIRR still uses sporadically as the Central Branch. The right-of-way between Garden City and Bethpage remains intact, and it is recommended that it be reactivated at least as far as East Garden City, with an East Garden City station at Oak Street and a Nassau Center station at Endo Boulevard. This is for two reasons.
Long Island is unusually job-poor for a mature American suburb. This comes partly from the lack of historic town centers like Stamford or Bridgeport on the New Haven Line or White Plains and Sleepy Hollow in Westchester. More recently, it is also a legacy of Robert Moses, who believed in strict separation of urban jobs from suburban residences and constructed the parkway system to feed city jobs. As a result of both trends, Long Island has limited job sprawl.
However, East Garden City specifically is one of two exceptions, together with Mineola: it has a cluster with 18,000 jobs within 1 km of either of the two recommended stations. Reopening the branch to East Garden City would encourage reverse-commuting by train.
Opening a second branch on the Hempstead Line helps balance demand in two separate ways. First, the population and job densities in Queens are a multiple of those of Long Island and always will be, and therefore the frequency of trains that Queens would need, perhaps a local train every 5 minutes all day, would grossly overserve Hempstead. At the distance of Hempstead or East Garden City, only a train every 10-15 minutes (in a pinch, even every 20) is needed, and so having two branches merging for city service is desirable.
And second, having frequent Hempstead Line local service forces all of the trains on the outer tracks of the Main Line in Queens to run local, just as the subway has consistent local and express tracks. The LIRR gets away with mixing different patterns on the same track because local frequency is very low; at high frequency, it would need to run like the subway. Because passengers from outer suburbs should get express trains, it is valuable to build as much infrastructure as possible to help feed the local tracks, which would be the less busy line at rush hour.
Train access and integration
Today, the LIRR primarily interfaces with cars. LIRR capital spending goes to park-and-rides, and it is expected that riders should drive to the most convenient park-and-ride, even on a different branch from the one nearest to their home. This paradigm only fills trains at rush hour to Manhattan, and is not compatible with integrated public transportation. In working-class suburbs like Hempstead, many take cheaper, slower buses. Instead, the system should aim for total integration at all levels, to extend the city and its relative convenience of travel without the car into suburbia.
Fares must be mode-neutral. This means that, just as within the city the fares on the buses and subways are the same, everywhere else in the region a ticket should be valid on all modes within a specified zone. Within the city, all trains and buses should charge the same fares, with free intermodal transfers.
Such a change would entice city residents to switch from the overcrowded E and F trains to the LIRR, which is by subway standards empty: the average Manhattan-bound morning rush hour LIRR train has only 85% of its seats occupied. In fact, if every E or F rider switches to the LIRR, which of course will not happen as they don’t serve exactly the same areas, then the LIRR’s crowding level, measured in standees per m^2 of train area, will be lower than that of the E and F today.
In the suburbs, the fares can be higher than in the city, in line with the higher operating costs over longer distances. But the fares must likewise be mode-neutral, with free transfers. For example, within western Nassau County, fares could be set at 1.5 times subway fare, which means that all public transit access between the city and Hempstead would cost $190 monthly or $4.00 one-way, by any mode: NICE bus, the LIRR, or a bus-train combo.
This would be a change from today’s situation, where premium-price trains only attract middle-class riders, while the working class rides buses. In fact, the class segregation today is such that in the morning rush hour, trains run full to Manhattan and empty outbound and NICE buses, which carry working-class reverse-commuters, are the opposite. Thus, half of each class’s capacity is wasted.
Bus redesign and bus access
Instead of competing with the trains, buses should complement them, just as they do within the city with the subway. This means that the NICE system should be designed along the following lines:
- More service perpendicular to the LIRR, less parallel to it.
- Bus nodes at LIRR stations, enabling passengers to connect.
- Timed transfers: at each node the buses should arrive and depart on the same schedule, for example on the hour every 20 minutes, to allow passengers to change with minimal hassle. This includes timed transfers with the trains if they run every 15 minutes or worse, but if they run more frequently, passengers can make untimed connections as they do in the city.
Urban and suburban rail stations should include bike parking. Bikes take far less space than cars, and thus bike park-and-ride stations in the Netherlands can go up to thousands of stalls while still maintaining a walkable urban characteristic.
In many countries, including the United States on the West Coast, systems encourage riders to bring their bikes with them on the train. However, in New York it’s preferably to adopt the Dutch system, in which bikes are not allowed on trains, and instead stations offer ample bike parking. This is for two reasons. First, New York is so large and has such a rush hour capacity crunch that conserving capacity on board each train is important. And second, cultures that bring bikes on trains, such as Northern California, arise where people take trains to destinations that are not walkable from the station; but in New York, passengers already connect to the subway for the last mile from Penn Station to their workplaces, and thus bikes are not necessary.
Trains should run intensively, with as little distinction between the peak and off-peak as is practical. At most, the ratio between peak and off-peak service should be 2:1. Already, the LIRR’s high ratio, 4:1 on the Hempstead Branch, means that trains accumulate at West Side Yard at the end of the morning peak. The costs of raising off-peak service to match peak service are fairly low to begin with, but they are especially low when the alternative is to expand a yard in Midtown Manhattan, paying Midtown Manhattan real estate prices.
For an early timetable in which the Babylon Branch provides extra frequency in the city, the following frequencies are possible:
|Penn Station-Garden City||5 minutes||10 minutes|
|Garden City-Hempstead||10 minutes||20 minutes|
|Garden City-Nassau Center||10 minutes||20 minutes|
A more extensive service, with all LIRR South Side diverting to a separate line from the Main Line, perhaps the Atlantic Branch to Downtown Brooklyn, requires an increase in off-peak urban service:
|Penn Station-Garden City||5 minutes||5 minutes|
|Garden City-Hempstead||10 minutes||10 minutes|
|Garden City-Nassau Center||10 minutes||10 minutes|
Further increases in peak service may be warranted for capacity reasons if there is more redevelopment than currently planned or legal by city and suburban zoning codes.
With rerating the LIRR equipment to its full acceleration rate, a fix to the Penn Station throat, and standard European schedule padding, the following timetable is feasible:
|Station||Time (current)||Time (future, M7)||Time (Euro-EMU)|
|Country Life Press||00:49||00:38||00:35|
|East Garden City||—||00:38||00:35|
Providing peak service every 10 minutes to each of Hempstead and Nassau Center requires 20 trainsets, regardless of whether they are existing LIRR equipment or faster, lighter European trainsets.
I’ve talked a lot recently about bad management as a root cause of poor infrastructure, especially on Twitter. The idea, channeled through Richard Mlynarik, is that the main barrier to good US infrastructure construction, or at least one of the main barriers, is personal incompetence on behalf of decisionmakers. Those decisionmakers can be elected officials, with levels of authority ranging from governors down to individual city council members; political appointees of said officials; quasi-elected power brokers who sit on boards and are seen as representative of some local interest group; public-sector planners; or consultants, usually ones who are viewed as an extension of the public sector and may be run by retired civil servants who get a private-sector salary and a public-sector pension. In this post I’d like to zoom in on the managers more than on the politicians, not because the politicians are not culpable, but because in some cases the managers are too. Moreover, I believe removal of managers with a track record of failure is a must for progress.
The issue of solipsism
Spending any time around people who manage poorly-run agencies is frustrating. I interview people who are involved in successful infrastructure projects, and then I interview ones who are involved in failed ones, and then people in the latter group are divided into two parts. Some speak of the failure interestingly; this can involve a blame game, typically against senior management or politics, but doesn’t have to, for example when Eric and I spoke to cost estimators about unit costs and labor-capital ratios. But some do not – and at least in my experience, the worst cases involve people who don’t acknowledge that something is wrong at all.
I connect this with solipsism, because this failure to acknowledge is paired with severe incuriosity about the rest of the world. A Boston-area official who I otherwise respect told me that it is not possible to electrify the commuter rail system cheaply, because it is 120 years old and requires other investments, as if the German, Austrian, etc. lines that we use as comparison cases aren’t equally old. The same person then said that it is not possible to do maintenance in 4-hour overnight windows, again something that happens all the time in Europe, and therefore there must be periodic weekend service changes.
A year and a half ago I covered a meeting that was videotaped, in which New Haven-area activists pressed $200,000/year managers at Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation about their commuter rail investments. Those managers spoke with perfect confidence about things they had no clue about, saying it’s not possible that European railroads buy multiple-units for $2.5 million per car, which they do; one asserted the US was unique in having wheelchair accessibility laws (!), and had no idea that FRA reform as of a year before the meeting permitted lightly-modified European trains to run on US track.
The worst phrase I keep hearing: apples to apples. The idea is that projects can’t really be compared, because such comparisons are apples to oranges, not apples to apples; if some American project is more expensive, it must be that the comparison is improper and the European or Asian project undercounted something. The idea that, to the contrary, sometimes it’s the American project that is easier, seems beyond nearly everyone who I’ve talked to. For example, most recent and under-construction American subways are under wide, straight streets with plenty of space for the construction of cut-and-cover station boxes, and therefore they should be cheaper than subways built in the constrained center of Barcelona or Stockholm or Milan, not more expensive.
What people are used to
In Massachusetts, to the extent there is any curiosity about rest-of-world practice, it comes because TransitMatters keeps pushing the issue. Even then, there is reticence to electrify, which is why the state budget for regional rail upgrades in the next few years only includes money for completing the electrification of sidings and platform tracks on the already-electrified Providence Line and for short segments including the Fairmount Line, Stoughton Branch, and inner part of the Newburyport and Rockport Lines. In contrast, high platforms, which are an ongoing project in Boston, are easier to accept, and thus the budget includes more widespread money for it, even if it falls short of full high-level platforms at every station in the system.
In contrast, where high platform projects are not so common, railroaders find excuses to avoid them. New Jersey Transit seems uninterested in replacing all the low platforms on its system with high platforms, even though the budget for such an operation is a fraction of that of the Gateway tunnel, which the state committed $2.5 billion to in addition to New York money and requested federal funding. The railroad even went as far as buying new EMUs that are compatible not with the newest FRA regulations, which are similar to UIC ones used in Europe, but with the old ones; like Metro-North’s management, it’s likely NJ Transit’s had no idea that the regulations even changed.
The issue of what people are used to is critical. When you give someone authority over other people and pay them $200,000 a year, you’re signaling to them, “never change.” Such a position can reward ambition, but not the ambition of the curious grinder, but that of the manager who makes other people do their work. People in such a position who do not know what “electronics before concrete” means now never will learn, not will they even value the insights of people who have learned. The org chart is clear: the zoomer who’s read papers about Swiss railroad planning works for the boomer who hasn’t, and if the boomer is uncomfortable with change, the zoomer can either suck it up or learn to code and quit for the private sector.
You can remove obstructionist managers
From time to time, a powerful person who refuses to use their power except in the pettiest ways accidentally does something good. Usually this doesn’t repeat itself, despite the concrete evidence that it is possible to do things thought too politically difficult. For example, LIRR head Helena Williams channeled Long Island NIMBYism and opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds – it would intrude on what Long Islanders think is their space in the tunnels to Penn Station. But PSA was a priority for Governor Andrew Cuomo, so Cuomo fired Williams, and LIRR opposition vanished.
This same principle can be done at scale. Managers who refuse to learn from successful examples, which in capital construction regardless of mode and in operations of mainline rail are never American and rarely in English-speaking countries, can and should be replaced. Traditional railroaders who say things are impossible that happen all the time in countries they look down on can be fired; people from those same countries will move to New York for a New York salary.
This gets more important the more complex a project gets. It is possible, for example, to build high-speed rail between Boston and Washington for a cost in the teens of billions and not tens, let alone hundreds, but not a single person involved in any of the present effort can do that, because it’s a project with many moving parts and if you trust a railroad manager who says “you can’t have timed overtakes,” you’ll end up overbuilding unnecessary tunnels. In this case, managers with a track record of looking for excuses why things are impossible instead of learning from places that do those things are toxic to the project, and even kicking them up is toxic, because their subordinates will learn to act like that too. The squeaky wheel has to be removed and thrown into the garbage dumpster.
And thankfully, squeaky wheels that get thrown into the dumpster stop squeaking. All of this is possible, it just requires elected officials who have the ambition to take risks to effect tangible change rather than play petty office politics every day. Cuomo is the latter kind of politician, but he proved to everyone that a more competent leader could replace solipsists with curious learners and excusemongers with experts.
I sometimes see a claim in comments here or on social media that the reason American costs are so high is that scarcity makes it hard to be efficient. This can be a statement about government practice: the US government supposedly doesn’t support transit enough. Sometimes it’s about priorities, as in the common refrain that the federal government should subsidize operations and not just capital construction. Sometimes it’s about ideology – the idea that there’s a right-wing attempt to defund transit so there’s siege mentality. I treat these three distinct claims as part of the same, because all of them really say the same thing: give American transit agencies more money without strings attached, and they’ll get better. All of these claims are incorrect, and in fact high costs cannot be solved by giving more money – more money to agencies that waste money now will be wasted in the future.
The easiest way to see that theories of political precarity or underresourcing are wrong is to try to see how agencies would react if they were beset mostly by scarcity as their defenders suggest. For example, the federal government subsidizes capital expansion and not operations, and political transit advocates in the United States have long called for operating funds. So, if transit agencies invested rationally based on this restrictions, what would they do? We can look at this, and see that this differs greatly from how they actually invest.
The political theory of right-wing underresourcing is similarly amenable to evaluation using the same method. Big cities are mostly reliant not on federal money but state and local money, so it’s useful to see how different cities react to different threat levels of budget cuts. It’s also useful to look historically at what happened in response to cuts, for example in the Reagan era, and spending increases, for example in the stimulus in the early Obama era and again now.
How to respond to scarcity
A public transit agency without regular funding would use the prospects of big projects to get other people’s money (OPM) to build longstanding priorities. This is not hypothetical: the OPM effect is real, and for example people have told Eric and me that Somerville used the original Green Line Extension to push for local amenities, including signature stations and a bike lane called the Community Path. In New York, the MTA has used projects that are sold to the public as accessibility benefits to remodel stations, putting what it cares about (cleaning up stations) on the budget of something it does not (accessibility).
The question is not whether this effect is real, but rather, whether agencies are behaving rationally, using OPM to build useful things that can be justified as related to the project that is being funded. And the answer to this question is negative.
For every big federally-funded project, one can look at plausible tie-ins that can be bundled into it that enhance service, which the Somerville Community Path would not. At least the ongoing examples we’ve been looking at are not so bundled. Consider the following misses:
Green Line Extension
GLX could include improvements to the Green Line, and to some extent does – it bundles a new railyard. However, there are plenty of operational benefits on the Green Line that are somewhere on the MBTA’s wishlist that are not part of the project. Most important is level boarding: all vehicles have a step up from the platform, because the doors open outward and would strike the platform if there were wheelchair-accessible boarding. The new vehicles are different and permit level boarding, but GLX is not bundling full level boarding at all preexisting stations.
East Side Access and Gateway
East Side Access and Gateway are two enormous commuter rail projects, and are the world’s two most expensive tunnels per kilometer. They are tellingly not bundled with any capital improvements that would boost reliability and throughput: completion of electrification on the LIRR and NJ Transit, high platforms on NJ Transit, grade separations of key junctions between suburban branches.
The issue of operating expenses
More broadly, American transit agencies do not try to optimize their rail capital spending around the fact that federal funding will subsidize capital expansion but not operations. Electrification is a good deal even for an agency that has to fund everything from one source, cutting lifecycle costs of rolling stock acquisition and maintenance in half; for an agency that gets its rolling stock and wire from OPM but has to fund maintenance by itself, it’s an amazing investment with no downside. And yet, American commuter rail agencies do not prioritize it. Nor do they prioritize high platforms – they invest in them but in bits and pieces. This is especially egregious at SEPTA, which is allowed by labor agreement to remove the conductors from its trains, but to do so needs to upgrade all platforms to level boarding, as the rolling stock has manually-operated trap doors at low-platform stations.
Agencies operating urban rail do not really invest based on operating cost minimization either. An agency that could get capital funding from OPM but not operating funding could transition to driverless trains; American agencies do not do so, even in states with weak unions and anti-union governments, like Georgia and Florida. New York specifically is beset by unusually high operating expenses, due to very high maintenance levels, two-person crews, and inefficient crew scheduling. If the MTA has ever tried to ask for capital funding to make crew scheduling more efficient, I have not seen it; the biggest change is operational, namely running more off-peak service to reduce shift splitting, but it’s conceivable that some railyards may need to be expanded to position crews better.
Finally, buses. American transit agencies mostly run buses – the vast majority of US public transport service is buses, even if ridership splits fairly evenly between buses and trains. The impact of federal aid for capital but not operations is noticeable in agency decisions to upgrade a bus route to rail perhaps prematurely in some medium-size cities. It’s also visible in bus replacement schedules: buses are replaced every 12 years because that’s what the Federal Transit Administration will fund, whereas in Canada, which has the same bus market and regulations but usually no federal funding for either capital or operations, buses are made to last slightly longer, around 15 years.
It’s hard to tell if American transit agencies are being perfectly rational with bus investment, because a large majority of bus operating expenses are the driver’s wage, which is generally near market rate. That said, the next largest category is maintenance, and there, it is possible to be efficient. Some agencies do it right, like the Chicago Transit Authority, which replaces 1/12 of its fleet every year to have long-term maintenance stability, with exactly 1/12 of the fleet up for mid-life refurbishment each year. Others do it wrong – the MTA buys buses in bunches, leading to higher operating expenses, even though it has a rolling capital plan and can self-fund this system in years when federal funds are not forthcoming.
Right-wing budget cuts
Roughly the entirety of the center-right policy sphere in the United States is hostile to public transportation. The most moderate and least partisan elements of it identify as libertarian, like Cato and Reason, but mainstream American libertarianism is funded by the Koch Brothers and tends toward climate change denial and opposition to public transportation even where its natural constituency of non-left-wing urbane voters is fairly liberal on this issue. The Manhattan Institute is the biggest exception that I’m aware of – it thinks the MTA needs to cut pension payments and weaken the unions but isn’t hostile to the existence of public transportation. In that environment, there is a siege mentality among transit agencies, which associate any criticism on efficiency grounds as part of a right-wing strategy to discredit the idea of government.
Or is there?
California does not have a Republican Party to speak of. The Democrats have legislative 2/3 majorities, and Senate elections, using a two-round system, have two Democrats facing each other in the runoff rather than a Democrat and a Republican. In San Francisco, conservatism is so fringe that the few conservatives who remain back the moderate faction of city politics, whose most notable members are gay rights activist and magnet for alt-right criticism Scott Wiener, (until his death) public housing tenant organizer Ed Lee, and (currently) Mayor London Breed, who is building homeless shelters in San Francisco over NIMBY objections. The biggest organized voices in the Bay Area criticizing the government on efficiency grounds and asserting that the private sector is better come from the tech industry, and usually the people from that industry who get involved with politics are pro-immigration climate change hawks. Nobody is besieging the government in the Bay Area. Nor is anybody besieging public transit in particular – it is popular enough to routinely win the required 2/3 majority for tax hikes in referendums.
In New York, this is almost as true. The Democrats have a legislative 2/3 majority as of the election that just concluded, there does not appear to be a serious Republican candidate for either mayor or governor right now, and the Manhattan Institute recognizes its position and, on local issues of governance, essentially plays the loyal opposition. The last Republican governor, George Pataki, backed East Side Access, trading it for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, which State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver favored.
One might expect that the broad political consensus that more public transportation is good in New York and the Bay Area would enable long-term investment. But it hasn’t. The MTA has had five-year capital plans for decades, and has known it was going to expand with Second Avenue Subway since the 1990s. BART has regularly gotten money for expansion, and Caltrain has rebuilt nearly all of its platforms in the last generation without any attempt at level boarding.
How a competent agency responds to scarcity
American transit agencies’ extravagant capital spending is not in any way a rational response to any kind of precarity, economic or political. So what is? The answer is, the sum total of investment decisions made in most low-cost countries fits the bill well.
Swiss planning maxims come out of a political environment without a left-wing majority; plans for high-speed rail in the 1980s ran into opposition on cost grounds, and the Zurich U-Bahn plans had lost two separate referendums. The kind of planning Switzerland has engaged in in the last 30 years to become Europe’s strongest rail network came precisely because it had to be efficient to retain public trust to get funds. The Canton of Zurich has to that end had to come up with a formula to divide subsidies between different municipalities with different ideas of how much public services they want, and S-Bahn investment has always been about providing the best passenger experience at the lowest cost.
Elsewhere in Europe, one sees the same emphasis on efficiency in the Nordic countries. Scandinavia as a whole has a reputation for left-wing politics, because of its midcentury social democratic dominance and strong welfare states. But as a region it also practices hardline monetary austerity, to the point that even left-led governments in Sweden and Finland wanted to slow down EU stimulus plans during the early stages of the corona crisis. There is a great deal of public trust in the state there, but it is downstream of efficiency and not upstream of it – high-cost lines get savaged in the press, which engages in pan-Nordic comparisons to assure that people get value for money.
Nor is there unanimous consensus in favor of public transportation anywhere in Europe that I know of, save Paris and London. Center-right parties support cars and oppose rail in Germany and around it. Much of the Swedish right loathes Greta Thunberg, and the center-right diverted all proceeds from Stockholm’s congestion charge to highway construction. The British right has used the expression “war on the motorist” even more than the American right has the expression “war on cars.” The Swiss People’s Party is in government as part of the grand coalition, has been the largest party for more than 20 years, and consistently opposes rail and supports roads, which is why the Lötschberg Base Tunnel’s second track is only 1/3 complete.
Most European transit agencies have responded effectively to political precarity and budget crunches. They invest to minimize future operating expenses, and make long-term plans as far as political winds permit them to. American transit agencies don’t do any of this. They’re allergic to mainline rail electrification, sluggish about high platforms, indifferent to labor-saving signaling projects, hostile to accessibility upgrades unless sued, and uncreative about long-term operating expenses. They’re not precarious – they’re just incompetent.
There’s a study by Eno looking at urban rail construction costs, comparing the US to Europe. When it came out last month I was asked to post about it, and after some Patreon polling in which other posts ranked ahead, here it goes. In short: the study has some interesting analysis of the American cost premium, but suffers from some shortcomings, particularly with the comprehensiveness of the non-American data. Moreover, while most of the analysis in the body of the study is solid, the executive summary-level analysis is incorrect. Streetsblog got a quote from Eno saying there is no US premium, and on a panel at Tri-State a week ago T4A’s Beth Osborne cited the same study to say that the US isn’t so bad by European standards, which is false, and does not follow from the analysis. The reality is that the American cost premium is real and large – larger than Eno thinks, and in particular much larger than the senior managers at Eno who have been feeding these false quotes to the press think.
What’s the study?
Like our research group at Marron, Eno is comparing American urban rail construction costs per kilometer with other projects around the world. Three key differences are notable:
- Eno looks at light rail and not just rapid transit. We have included a smattering of projects that are called light rail but are predominantly rapid transit, such as Stadtbahns, the Green Line Extension in Boston, and surface portions of some regional rail lines (e.g. in Turkey), but the vast majority of our database is full rapid transit, mostly underground and not elevated. This means that Eno has a mostly complete database for American urban rail, which is by construction length mostly light rail and not subways, whereas we have gaps in the United States.
- Eno only compares the United States with other Western countries, on the grounds that they are the most similar. There is a fair amount of Canada in their database, one Australian line, and a lot of Europe, but no high-income Asia at all. Nor do they look at developing countries, or even upper-middle-income ones like Turkey.
- Eno’s database in Europe is incomplete. In particular, it looks by country, including lines in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France, but even there it has coverage gaps, and there is no Switzerland, little Scandinavia (in particular, no ongoing Stockholm subway expansion), and no Eastern Europe.
The analysis is similar to ours, i.e. they look at average costs per km controlling for how much of the line is underground. They include one additional unit of analysis that we don’t, which is station spacing; ex ante one expects closer station spacing to correlate with higher costs, since stations are a significant chunk of the cost and this is especially notable for very expensive projects.
The main finding in the Eno study is that the US has a significant cost premium over Europe and Canada. The key here is figure 5 on takeaway 4. All costs are in millions of PPP dollars per kilometer.
|Tunnel proportion||Median US cost||Median non-US cost|
However, the study lowballs the US premium in two distinct ways: poor regression use, and upward bias of non-US data.
Regression and costs
The quotes saying the US has no cost premium over Europe come from takeaways 2 and 3. Those are regression analyses comparing cost per km to the tunnel proportion (takeaway 3) or at-grade proportion (takeaway 2). There are two separate regression lines for each of the two takeaways, one looking at US projects and one at non-US ones. In both cases, the American regression line is well over the European-and-Canadian line for tunneled projects but the lines intersect roughly when the line goes to 0% underground. This leads to the conclusion that the US has no premium over Europe for light rail projects. Moreover, because the US has outliers in New York, the study concludes that there is no US premium outside New York. Unfortunately, these conclusions are both false.
The reason the regression lines intersect is that regression is a linear technique. The best fit line for the US construction cost per km relative to tunnel proportion has a y-intercept that is similar to the best fit line for Europe. However, visual inspection of the scattergram in takeaway 3 shows that at 0% underground, most US projects are somewhat more expensive than most European projects; this is confirmed in takeaway 4. All this means that the US has an unusually large premium for tunneled projects, driven by the fact that the highest-cost part of the US, New York, builds fully-underground subways and not els or light rail. If instead of Second Avenue Subway and the 7 extension New York had built high-cost els, for example the plans for a PATH extension to Newark Airport, then a regression line would show a large US premium for elevated projects but not so much for tunnels.
I tag this post “good/interesting studies” and not just “shoddy studies” because the inclusion of takeaway 4 makes this clear: there is a US premium for light rail, it’s just smaller than for subways, and then regression analysis can falsely make this premium disappear. This is an error, but an interesting one, and I urge people who use statistics and data science to study the difference between takeaways 2 and 3 and takeaway 4 carefully, to avoid making the same error in their own work.
Eno has a link to its dataset, from which one can see which projects are included. It’s notable that Eno is comprehensive within the United States, but not in Europe. Unfortunately, this introduces a bias into the data, because it’s easier to find information about expensive projects than about cheap ones. Big projects are covered in the media, especially if there are cost overruns to report. There is also a big-city premium because it’s more complicated to build line 14 of a metro system than to build line 1, and this likewise biases incomplete data because it’s easier to find what goes on in Paris than to find what goes on in a sleepy provincial town like Besançon. Yonah Freemark thankfully has good coverage of France and includes low-cost Besançon, but Eno does not – its French light rail database is heavy on Paris and has big gaps in the provinces. French Wikipedia in fact has a list, and all of the listed systems, which are provincial, have lower costs than Paris.
There is also no coverage of German tramways; we don’t have such coverage either, since there are many small projects and they’re in small cities like Bielefeld, but my understanding is that they are not very expensive. Traditionally German rail advocates held the cost of a tramway to be €10 million/km, which is clearly too low for the 2010s, but it should lower the median cost compared to the Paris-heavy, Britain-heavy Eno database.